Monday, April 25, 2011

A disturbing book on Indian Muslims by Jeremy Seabrook

Topsia, a largely slum region on the edge of wetlands in east Kolkata, is an area that has fallen outside the map of municipal development. Worse, on the radar of the city’s general consciousness, the name registers no more than a feeble beep.
Along with Beniapukur, Tiljala and Tangra, the other three main areas focused upon in the book, Topsia also happens to be among the city’s most densely populated Muslim neighbourhoods.

The stubborn, uninterrupted poverty of these places and their residents’ Muslim faith is the basis of Seabrook’s study into the lives of the Others. “There is a widespread view that little common ground exists between Muslims and the rest of humanity,” the author notes. “This has become axiomatic for many…who contrast our ‘progress’ with their ‘backwardness’.”

With the avowed intention of correcting this unhappy state of affairs, the British journalist and commentator stitches together a collage of urban lives caught in a whirlpool of crime, drugs, larceny, corruption, coercion, underdevelopment, ignorance, neglect, vote-bank politics and intrigues of land sharks.
People without History— India’s Muslim Ghettos: Navayana, 257 pages, Rs 295.
Yet the grand canvas that the title of the book suggests, and the blurb reiterates, is missing between the covers. Even while doing an admirable job of documenting the lives there (the most desperate creatures on earth, the author contends), People without History rarely moves beyond the precincts of its four Kolkata Muslim slum areas. In fact, it doesn’t even venture into the other Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods with similar or worse living conditions, Rajabazar being a notable example. People without History can only be a study of India’s Muslim Ghettos through gross generalization.
Most unsettling is the premise of the book that pits wider society against the largely Urdu-speaking Muslim slum population in Kolkata, and by the strength of notion, in all of India. Even as most interviewees in People without History testify, it becomes obvious that their circumstances are often not uniquely different from those living in, say, Kolkata’s and the country’s Hindu-majority slums: the other Others. The vortex of death, addiction, decay and exploitative politics is common to every urban Indian slum. Is faith the only differential in the lives of the Muslim slum dweller in Beniapukur and the Hindu day labourer in Dum Dum and Behala?

Seabrook highlights the appalling lives of the poor and their tremendous urge to survive the odds in painstaking detail, but misses the forest for the trees. In the plight of the Muslims of Topsia, Beniapukur, Tiljala and Tangra resonates the plight of the city; one which has seen the flight of capital and opportunities to more profitable and less-politicized shores, leaving behind barely enough for all its citizens. Since then it has been a narrative of shared struggle and common shame across communities in the city.

Take, for instance, the story of Qutubuddin Ansari, which hasn’t found a place in the book. Ansari was referred to as the “face of the 2002 Gujarat riots” after the photograph of the Muslim’s tailor’s horror-struck face pleading for life was splashed in the media. Ansari would find a home in Kolkata after the state government pledged support to rebuild his life and business. In less than a year, Ansari would go back to Gujarat and his tailoring business. The promise of peace brought him to Kolkata; the lack of prospects saw him return.

It could have been the story of a city.

Shamik Bag reviews “People without History— India’s Muslim Ghettos” by Jeremy Seabrook and Imran Ahmed Siddiqui in Mint Lounge. More Here


V K Abdul Malik said...

It is atrocious to call Muslims as People without history. Without Muslims this country doesnot have history. What audocity! What a temerity!

Unknown said...

Mr.Abdul - Its about time Muslims recognize and accept the realities and start calling a spade a spade. Nobody is more responsible for this plight than their leadership. Its about time they come out of the stranglehold of their religion and introspect as to where they are going wrong. Wrong leaders have played into the hands of politicians, who have set the wrong priorities for the Muslims.
They should wake upto the fact that not quantity but quality that would makes the difference.


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